Friday, April 08, 2011

Moments Of Clarity And Resolution

Unusually for me, I am reading two very different books simultaneously. I have neither the attention nor deftness of mind, normally, to read more than a single book at any given time. Roy Jenkins' Gladstone: A Biography coupled with Paul Tillich's The Courage To Be are an interesting duo, to say the least. The first, a witty and engaging survey of that singular giant of Victorian politics; the second, the most popular work of that odd combination of German theology, existential philosophy, and American indulgence certainly seem an odd pair. Jenkins' combines a biographer's insight with a practical politician's grasp of the possible (Jenkins was a Labor MP for many years, serving as Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer in various Labor governments until that party's collapse in the 1970's; he now sits in the House of Lords, and has left the Labor Party, which has become indistinguishable from Thatcherite Toryism, far behind), and his discussion of Gladstone's career often involves a survey of mid-Victorian social and political realities that are far more clear than the fanciful notions of other, less knowledgeable, historians.

Tillich's remarkable achievement is to distill in a short work the essential elements of that most elusive quality because it is the most demanding of the classical virtues. At the heart of so much of our current malaise lies fear, and courage not only takes in fear in order to transcend it, by stripping the facade created by fear, what Tillich calls "masks", we already being the journey to overcoming fear and facing reality with true courage by recognizing it for what it is.

Politics is usually not a forum in which courage is conspicuous. Democratic politics, by and large, discourages not only courage, but honesty as well, because the choices we face are often unpalatable, and the solutions out of favor with the ruling class. As John Quiggin notes in a post at Crooked Timber, the public continues to support a more firmly left-wing set of solutions to our current problems than is acceptable by our elected officials. The turn to the Republican Party by the majority of those who voted in last November's elections is explainable at least as much by the large group that refused to vote because they have become disenchanted by the Democratic Party's weakness as an inherent trust in the approach of the Republican Party.

In this I must confess my own complicity. Despite my own repeated assertions that I understood Barack Obama to be resolutely centrist, I allowed myself to believe it possible that, given his across-the-board rejection, during the campaign, of the Bush Administration approach to pretty much everything, change would come quickly and decisively. While there were certainly some early moments that would give most comfort - the Executive Order calling for the closing of the Guantanamo Bay prison for instance, now long forgotten - the result of the past two years has been the realization that the President is, despite his repeated insistence on hope and a Kennedyesque call to arms and support among so many young voters, a creature of the limited, and unreal, politics of our time.

While our current budget impasse is a glaring example, one could name so many instances where the Obama Administration has not only continued policies one would think it would end, but expanded them - domestic surveillance, military tribunals without due process for those who continue to be incarcerated at an open Guantanamo Bay prison, the expansion of our military commitment in Afghanistan without any clear strategic goals, the participation in the misguided NATO mission in Libya - that it is clear now our support was the triumph of self-delusion over clarity of thought. I, for one, believed the President to be better than his record, or at least that such would be possible given the latitude of action granted any President, particularly one elected with such broad support and with a commanding party majority in both Houses of Congress. We are where we are not only because the current Republican majority is an alchemy of unreality and political insanity, but because the President is tepid, silent, quick to compromise rather than stand for policies the American people support, and, at the end of the day, far more weak than any Democratic President I can remember. Even the claimed weakness of Jimmy Carter was as nothing to that of Barack Obama.

Our moment calls for clarity, honesty, and, as I have been repeating, courage. The times have not produced anyone able to address them, but done quite the opposite. Thus, for the moment, despite its seriousness, I find myself firmly believing it far better not to involve myself in matters of public import. Should circumstances change, that may change as well. By and large, with events of the past two years as a guide, I doubt any such change will occur.

Yes, by the way, I still feel quite dirty by even contemplating how odious is our current discourse and the practical consequences that are flowing from it.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

This Moment (UPDATE)

We are a day or so away from a shutdown of the United States government. I have no desire to pretend it is the fault of this or that party, this or that ideology. In general, I tend to refuse to play the blame game. Right now, at this moment, I find myself in the curious position of not really caring about the situation, while simultaneously recognizing that, with hundreds of thousands of troops in harms way, this is a most dangerous moment in our history.

First, beyond any doubt in my mind, the whole idea that there is a fiscal crisis with which we must deal, that the public is demanding action, is ridiculous. There is no such crisis. We have a decade-long, multi-front war which has been carried on without any serious funding plan. Indeed, even in the midst of this war, taxes remained at historically low levels, and any increase in revenue to cover the expense not only of these conflicts, but general governmental expenses, has been considered out of bounds.

Simultaneously, a domestic financial bubble was allowed to grow, then burst abruptly, although certainly not without having been predicted, dragging down not only the housing and banking industries, but the automobile industry, and the economy as a whole. Fiscal measures that, for two generations and more, are generally considered favorable to restarting a stalled economy became a matter of controversy, and a plan to stimulate the economy through government spending, while certainly helpful, was neither large enough, nor long enough in duration to do anything but, perhaps, stave off the worst possible scenario, economically speaking.

The previous Congress, with its Democratic majority, was both highly productive but also, in its final months, cowardly in the extreme. The hectic days of the lame-duck session, after the Republican Party retook a majority of seats, proves this more than anything as many measures that were considered dead were passed easily enough. One matter, however, overall federal spending for the current fiscal year, was not dealt with. The incoming Republican majority was determined to use the failure of the previous Democratic majority to force a confrontation that could lead, and has now led us, to the brink of a shutdown of the federal government, including, as noted Tuesday, stopping pay to troops now in combat in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Not once in all the discussions has the threat of a government shutdown in a time of war been noted. Not once in all the column inches of any newspaper or website have I read anyone say that the "fiscal crisis" is imaginary, a product of and underfunded federal government and an economic downturn. Not once in all the finger pointing and blame announcing, have I read anyone call what is now happening false, fake, contrived, phony, or nonsensical. With certain obvious solutions not up for discussion - higher taxes, ending the conflict in Afghanistan and bringing home combat forces in Yemen as well as our troops stationed in Iraq, ending our involvement in the NATO airstrikes on Libya - any "real" solution to the current mess is out of the question. No matter if a government shutdown occurs or doesn't occur, we shall find ourselves again, next year or the year after, in this same situation, facing a massive shortfall of revenue, a sluggish economy (most economists agree it will be years before we approach the kind of economic activity we had in the middle years of the past decade, and far longer if ever before we achieve anything like what we had in the 1990's), and a largely false political discussion.

This is a moment of deep, troubling events. No one - not the President, not anyone in Congress - has displayed any kind of courage or honesty or integrity in addressing what is before us. For this reason, as well as for the insipid, ridiculous nature of so much of what passes for commentary, I am trying, best as I can, to distance myself from any involvement in these events. To be blunt, I feel dirty even thinking about it all, disgusted with our country, ashamed that there is no one willing to be the kind of leader we need right now.

UPDATE: While Paul Krugman has certainly shown remarkable good sense in dismissing Rep. Paul Ryan's "budget" as the nonsense it is, the following, thanks to a link from Jay Ackroyd at Eschaton, is even more clear on what should be, were our politics less insane, the political realities.
As I’ve noted previously, you can do a combination of tax increases (not too much, just nudge them back up to Clinton-era rates) and defense cuts and you don’t even have to voucherize Medicare or implement a millionaire’s tax and just like that you have yourself back on the right fiscal trajectory through 2030. Small tweaks to Social Security fix that program, and Medicare can only be fixed if we tackle the healthcare system as a whole – which Obamacare begins to do. Ryan’s budget repeals the ACA.


I’m confused. A lot of Democrats have suggested some sort of compromise on spending cuts and tax increases. It’s the Republicans who won’t countenance repealing the Bush tax cuts. It’s Republicans who are bound to block any serious effort to scale back defense (though Tom Coburn is good on this, and many Democrats have their fingers in the defense money-pot as well…) It’s Republicans like Ryan who are proposing radical measures that are tantamount to massive wealth transfers from the poor to the wealthy.
That this pretty clear statement of reality is outside the bounds of our current discourse is evidence enough that staying out of the fray is by far the best option for those who cannot impact it at all.

A Day Late

There are fewer indications that ours is a decadent, superficial society than the viral status of the fluff, vanity video, "Friday".

While one could say that the multitudes of parodies of this parody of music show a certain robust sense of balance, to me the simple fact that so many are both fulminating about it while simultaneously staring at it as one might a bad multi-car accident we are indulging in a kind death-bed scene, the final rattling breaths of an industry no longer certain it has anything to offer the world, believing, beyond all reason and without any evidence, that pandering to fourteen year old girls is the sole recourse to economic survival.

Happily, there are hundreds of musical acts out there who struggle gamely on, refusing to bend to the winds of their industrial handlers or otherwise compromise their visions for the possibility of suddenly mounting stadium tours in the summer. Content to follow their muse, aided by technology that can turn a sitting room in to a music studio, they write and record songs that appeal to them, a sure-fire way of appealing to discerning music fans everywhere. Even the most facile of these singer-songwriters - Iron & Wine, John Mayer, Norah Jones - have something of an auteur about their work, even if occasionally slipping in to nonsensical solipsism and the recording of minutiae at the expense of revelatory introspection. That our fading music industry refuses to hear their many virtues in favor of indulging and already indulged child, simultaneously providing fodder for critics both of this misguided young lady and the many insiders who shepherd her along is testimony to the deafness and stupidity of an industry that, once upon a time, allowed its favored acts to use illegal drugs in its offices, sat back and let musicians produce album after album of material that could not produce a hit single, and trusted in the discernment of the public to weed out the grain from the chaff.

Considering this year has already produced a singular musical achievement in Amos Lee's Mission Bell, the Rebecca Black phenomenon is even more ridiculous than it might otherwise be. Here, by way of contrast to the foregoing, is "Violin", a gut-wrenching plea for divine intervention by one who sounds lost and on the brink.

Because quality will out, here are ten different songs, randomly chosen by iTunes, with nary a fluffy filler among them.

Hier Lasst Mich Ruhn Die Letzte Stunde - Franz Schubert, Lazarus Oratorio
Burning Rope - Genesis
Lines in the Sand (Live) - Dream Theater
End of the World - Blackfield
It Is For You, But Not For Us (Live) - King Crimson
Bitter Suite - Marillion
Red House (Live at Woodstock) - Jimi Hendrix
How Come - Ray LaMontagne
Hope For Us - Shadow Gallery
Cesaro Summability - Tool

If there is any testimony to the possibility that quality defeats the quick buck, it is the on-going career of Tom Waits.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Tea Party Republicans Dis American Troops Fighting Wars They Support

The imminent threat of a government shutdown has been the goal of the incumbent Tea Party majority in the House of Representatives since they were elected. They broached the subject initially when discussion turned, before they were seated but after the election, to budgetary matters. They love the idea of the kind of confrontation that makes them look like they are standing on principle when, by and large, there are no real principles involved, the fiscal mess has nothing to do with spending patterns, but the mash-up of a burst financial bubble and two unfunded wars (with a third now added, just to make things interesting). We are told, over and over, that the troops in the field will not be effected by the shutdown, it only deals with "non-essential" matters, like postal service, day-to-day operations of civilian departments, that kind of thing.

Except, of course, that, like the Republican protestations they do not want the shutdown, is a lie.
U.S. military troops at war in Iraq and Afghanistan would receive one-week’s pay instead of two in their next paycheck if the government shuts down this weekend due to the federal budget impasse, according to a senior defense official.

As the Cable’s Josh Rogin reports, after that initial one-week’s worth paycheck, “all uniformed military personnel would continue to work but would stop receiving paychecks.”

If the federal government shuts down, “you could have forces deployed in the field, with their families back home, and no one’s getting paid. And that could be an issue,” the defense official said.
You think it could be an issue? Hmmm . . .

As I have been saying all along, the lack of any fundamental grasp of the reality of our economic situation in the midst of fighting two wars is breathtaking, but in a bad way.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Living As Those Already Dead - Reflections On Bonhoeffer's Cost Of Discipleship

Pursuant not only to our on-going theme of courage and cowardice, but also to clarification for those readers who continue to believe, despite there being abundant evidence to the contrary, that I just don't get what it is to be a Christian, I got to thinking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In particular, his remarkable little book The Cost of Discipleship. It is an easy book to misunderstand, in particular as regards his opening chapter on costly grace. His point seems, without due consideration, to be antithetical to the entire spirit of freedom that is ours in Christ through the Spirit. Yet, on even the most minor further rumination, he is talking exactly about that freedom, a freedom that costs us everything because it cost God everything. It is free, there is no price we can pay, it is ours because it is grace. It costs us everything, our lives and fortunes and honor and all we hold precious, and is never to be taken for granted but continually sought in prayer and discipline because it is grace. In the freedom granted in the grace of the cross and empty tomb we find this dichotomy in which we come to understand ourselves as grasped by the love that is God without anything asked of us; yet, as we take hold of this freely-given love and forgiveness, we come to realize that it demands of us not just this or that, but everything. It is freedom not just from the fear of eternal separation from God, but freedom for the most rigorous, continuous searching with others who live in the continuous shadow of the cross for that to which God calls us.

At the heart of Bonhoeffer's little book is his famous dictum that when we are called by God, we are called to die. Not some metaphorical death. We are called to embrace our own very real death. We stand before God as those whose lives are now forfeit. All that we have, all that we are, all our great and good thoughts and deeds are over. To live in the very real, very costly grace of God is not to rest in the peaceful bosom or enfolded wings of an indulgent parent. Rather, it is to stand before the blood-soaked cross each and every moment of our lives. Who we are, before that moment, urges us to run away. The paradox of grace is just this - even as it is offered without price, it demands that we surrender everything we hold precious, our lives and our loves, our fortunes and our families. When the shadow of the cross falls upon us, the full measure of the price demanded of us for the freedom offered here demands that we turn and run. Our old lives cost us nothing, invite us to warmth, to a life lived without thinking about the very real ending that awaits us. The cross invites us to embrace that end, to make it our only reality, the only possibility that provides for true human life. There is no escaping this paradox, nowhere any of us who have been grasped by God can hide once the shadow of the cross falls upon us.

With that in mind, it is important to remember that the possibility of true human life, lived always with the understanding that we are, all of us, already dead, only comes with discipline. It is a discipline rooted in grace, to be sure, not possible outside the faith granted us in the Spirit, something we are to work out together with others who wear the wounds of Christ in their hearts. Yet it is a discipline. It cannot be assumed as something which God will grant to us out of the bounteous goodness of the Divine heart. On the contrary, precisely because each and every moment of our existence forces us to face the cross and the desire to have nothing to do with this bloody mess, this travesty of human and Divine judgment, this mockery of all we thought truly sacred, truly noble, we need to steel ourselves through prayer and devotion and sacrament and the vigilant, loving care of others so that the possibilities of living out the promises of God for real life - a real life lived in the full embrace of our own deaths - can become realized in and through us.

This is the background against which any of what I have written about Christian freedom needs to be considered. This is the background against which anything I have written about my own spiritual development, my own own deepening of faith, must be understood. It is right here, at the heart of the paradox of freedom and discipline, of Divine gratuity and human death, that I find myself living. It is why, by and large, I am unsympathetic to the embourgeoisement of American Christianity, its facile "praise", its encouragement of family over faith, its only demand being we make sure no fetus is left behind, and that all gays be denied the full rights of citizenship. It is why I find all talk of morality to be a dodge, a way of avoiding the very real discipline that calls us, each and every day, to understand that we are dead. We are dead to all that which calls us good, calls us kind, considerate, thoughtful. The cheap grace of social mores brings nothing but the haughty pride of those who seek to exclude. In grace that is truly costly, any question of morality becomes as meaningless as the empty family values that see in Christianity some bulwark for the family we are to renounce if need be in favor of that which is far more precious, far more lasting, that pearl of great price.

Now, I know some will read all this as a bunch of hokum, a further obsurantist denial of the "true" heart of the Christian faith. That's OK, because I'm not here to persuade anyone. I am here telling anyone who might wish to listen what is possible in the very real, very costly grace that is our in Jesus Christ crucified and risen.

Monday, April 04, 2011

43 Years

I feel I have been remiss because I haven't even noted that today is a terrible date in our nation's history. The early morning air in Memphis, TN was rent by gunfire and a great and good man bled out the last of his life on the balcony of a Howard Johnson's motel, beginning days of rage that included the 101st Airborne being called in to Chicago.

I think it is important today to remember that Martin King died in the full understanding that was most likely his lot. He pressed on, however, day after day, year after year, fourteen long years from his beginnings as leader of the Montgomery, AL bus boycott until that fateful early spring morning. His was the kind of courage we note too infrequently, the courage of someone doing the job they've been appointed, in the face of all sorts of trials and terrors.

We who live in a world that was only possible because King lived and fought and, ultimately, died do him a multitude of dishonors, remembering this or that speech, this or that act, this or that moment from his life without taking his whole life in to account. We who live in an age of rank cowardice, who shiver and shake before obstacles far less intransigent, far less dangerous to our collective hearts and souls, dishonor his memory by meekly submitting to the many threats, giving up without fighting, surrendering before the battle has even engaged. His life, his legacy, is that ordinary people, preachers and students and teachers and housewives can indeed change their country, even as all the forces around us insist that the status quo is natural, even necessary. We can make our country a better place, and it isn't easy, and there are fewer more ardent foes than the forces that benefit from how things are right now.

I think the only weapon I would add to King's quiver with a single arrow with "Love" written on it, would be laughter. The powerful may take a long time to fall to love, even militant love. Laughter, however, is intolerable. Beyond that, we should, on this April 4, decide that we will not have let him die in vain by refusing to submit to the dead hand of the status quo. Remember, even if we don't get there, we do at least have the possibility of getting to the mountaintop and seeing so clearly that promised land to which we march together.

A Recurring Theme

It has come to my attention that a certain thematic thread is running through much of my commentary on matters both political and Christian - that of courage, and its all-too-present opposite, cowardice. In the face of so many threats - economic, social, cultural, political, military - we find ourselves, as a nation and as Christian churches, in the position of striking out against a host of foes, many of which don't actually exist, and some of which would be overcome easily enough if we did not succumb to fear. I find it more than a little amusing, even in the midst of such dire circumstances, that we as a people might well need to remember that nothing is accomplished out of a sense of dread.

I shall turn to courage as a theological theme in a moment, but I would be remiss if I didn't note that, 300 years before the birth of Christ, Aristotle dealt specifically with this subject in the Nichomachean Ethics.
Now the brave man is as dauntless as man may be. Therefore, while he will fear even the things that are not beyond human strength, he will face them as he might and as the rule direct, for horour's sake; for this is the end of virtue. But it is possible to fear these more, or less, and again to fear things that are not terrible as if they were. Of the faults that are committed one consists in fearing what one should not, another in fearing as we should not, another in fearing when we should not, and so on; and so too with respect to the things that inspire confidence. The man, then, who faces and who fears the right things and from the right motive, in the right way and at the right time, and who feels confidence under the corresponding conditions, is brave; for the brave man feels and acts according to the merits of the case and in whatever way the rule directs. Now the end of every activity is conformity to the corresponding state of character. This is true, therefore, of the brave man a well as of others. But courage is noble. Therefore the end also is noble; for each thing is defined by its end. Therefore it is for a noble end that the brave man endure and acts as courage directs.(1115b, 11-24)

As we have said, then, courage is a mean with respect to things that inspire confidence or fear, in the circumstances that have been states; and it chooses or endures things because it is noble to do so, or because it is base not to do so.(1116a, 10-13, both passages translated by Richard McKeon)
The whole structure of Aristotle's approach to the virtues is summed up in this description of courage: that virtue is the result of a rational calculation; that virtue is finding the mean, using a set of rules, with the understanding of the proper end of each virtue; that this is accomplished through discipline and practice (what St. Thomas would call a habitus); that the most exemplary dramatization of courage is martial courage.

Despite the intervening 2000 years of Christian discussion, aided no doubt by the return via the Muslims after the Crusades of so much pagan literature, and the rediscovery of non-Christian virtues as equally compelling human ends, this approach, not only to courage, but to the rest of the virtues, exists largely intact. Indeed, utilitarianism is nothing more or less than measuring the costs and benefits of certain actions, and acting appropriately. Rawls' notions of justice as fairness and its implications for society are little more than understanding what the ends of justice are - provided we pretend we are acting as if we did not already exist in a society where the scales were out of balance - and acting accordingly. Aristotle's ideas concerning virtuous action, the rational calculation according to a set of rules prior to acting, and that courage, among the rest of the virtues, is nothing more or less than an action that falls somewhere between rank cowardice and foolhardiness (rushing in where angels fear to tread) should be familiar enough precisely because it is the way most of us consider how we are to act virtuously.

I would submit, however, that St. Thomas, when discussing the virtues in the Summa, erred when he excluded not just courage, but the rest of the pagan virtues from what he termed "theological virtues". He limited these to those imparted by grace and named by St. Paul at the end of 1 Corinthians 13 - faith, hope, and love. All the virtues discussed by Aristotle - magnanimity, temperance, prudence, courage - are also ways of being both fully human as well as acting in accord with the grace of God.

Courage, along with justice, is arguably a sub-theme of so much of both Testaments. The Psalms are filled both with pleas for assistance in the face of fear, and admonitions not to fear because of the omnipresence of God. The eighth chapter of St. Paul's letter to the Romans is nothing more or less than a long note of encouragement in the face of persecution and doubt, rooted in the reality that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the real fight, the real struggle, is over, and we are to live and act as those who know that nothing in this world can really destroy us.

We are living in difficult times, to be sure. Threats seem to press in on all sides, a never-ending stream of attacks on our sense of personal and social equanimity. In the face of these, we are experiencing what is, in essence, a national panic attack. While certainly understandable, understanding is never condoning (a point most conservatives seem not to comprehend; for instance, I can understand why some young Muslim men might see in martyrdom through mass murder an attractive alternative given a multitude of social and political circumstances, but this understanding certainly does not mean I condone such behavior, or find it reprehensible). That there are some politicians who would exploit these fears for their own rise to power is a reality that is always with us. It seems these voices exist, for example, in my own denomination of The United Methodist Church. By and large, however, fear and its exploitation are easy enough to spot, and, regardless of ideological or theological bent or preference, the best antidote is the recurring words of Scripture: "Fear not."

I have already written a bit on this theme before, and I am quite sure it will crop up again. This general, sketchy survey is meant as a way of underlining an important point. If we are ever to get beyond our current historical moment, to rise above the economic doldrums and our collective sense of foreboding, we each and all need to buck up, face our fears head on without flinching, and refuse to listen to the voices that insist we need to cower and let others do our living for us, make decisions for us, make of all the vicissitudes of the moment monsters that are more strong than any weapon we can fashion.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

What I Learned On My Vacation II

I wouldn't be honest if I didn't also write a bit about some other thoughts that occurred to me as I spent quite the largest amount of time repeating to myself, over and over again, how beautiful was the warmth, the lush flora, and the time and space away. While the Disney World resorts are certainly a testimony to the imagination, dogged determination, salesmanship, and tenacity of Walt and Roy Disney, it goes without saying that the thousands of visitors the parks have each day would be impossible without the direct intervention local, state, and federal governments, ensuring everything from a well-maintained interstate highway system and safe air travel to the basic minimal standards for healthy food and drink right through the triumphs of Rural Electrification and, in particular as we drove through southern Tennessee, the Tennessee Valley Authority, made me grateful that I live in a country that, once upon a time, believed it possible that we could, together, make our country better through concerted action directed from the state.

To all those who believe that state intervention in our society has been an unmitigated curse, devoutly to be dismantled at every opportunity, I would offer he vision of America without health and safety regulations regarding food and water, workplace safety, maximum hour and child labor laws, without the extension of electricity to vast swaths of unserved areas due to its lack of economic viability. The interstate highway system, the long-time dream of Dwight Eisenhower, is still a marvel, making our trip south a matter of a mere couple days rather than several fraught with uncertain conditions and poorly regulated accommodations in out of the way places. That so many insist that all of this has been a nightmare from which we need to awaken; or that we no longer can achieve so much more than we already have, due to the temporary dislocations of a sagging economy are testimony to a basic failure of nerve, a refusal to believe that America can, indeed, be great provided we not succumb to fear and a sense of failure.

Ours is a great nation in no small measure because we believed, once upon a time, that we deserved better, and together could work to realize it. We are ill-served by political leaders who insist this is no longer possible, that even to broach the possibility of improving our country is a danger to other values that our current state certainly doesn't bear out in practice. Unlike so many voices that insist that thus-and-such cannot be done, or should not be done, I believe that improving and enhancing our physical infrastructure, ensuring safe food and clean water, ensuring safe travel, and giving to all people the opportunity to work with dignity for better wages are not only possible, but necessary to remind us that we are, indeed, a great land who brightest days do not lie in the past, but in the years and decades to come.

I find it interesting that the prophets of failure, those who insist that we simply cannot do what needs to be done to make our land even better claim, with a straight face, they love America better than others, when their actions and words reflect a fundamental lack of faith in the American people and our ability to achieve so much. We are, and always have been, better than that, and deserve so much more than we currently have in our elected officials in any party currently walking the halls of the Capitol and Executive offices in Washington.

I find a lack of any sense of gratitude for those who worked so hard before us in the attitude that insists we simply cannot do what needs to be done to get this country running again, to improve our roads and our food supply, make water no longer a commodity that we buy but something available in every home by turning a handle on a tap. We owe to them, as well as to our children and grandchildren not yet born, a faith in the possibility that ours is, indeed, a great land, a great people, who can do so much if given the tools and opportunity to do it. Our prophets of failure undermine their own professed patriotism each and every time they open their mouths and insist that we, as a people, cannot do something we all know needs to be done. For all they claim to believe in certain exceptional American qualities, they sound far too often like those exceptional qualities are a dismal refusal to believe that anything at all can be done, that failure, second-rank status is our allotted place in the world, and that our best days are in a distant past.

What I Learned On My Vacation I

It would truly be a waste of time if, along with spending time with my family and generally enjoying myself away from the hustle and bustle of the daily grind, I didn't drag from amongst the rest a few things that are pertinent to the topics of this site.

First, driving down and back, traveling from the earliest days of spring to the middle of glorious summer in two short days - when we left last Saturday morning it was below freezing and threatening snow; when we arrived in Orlando on Sunday, it was 92 degrees and the concierge actually apologized to me for the heat - watching spring move through its round of days as the miles sped by, I was entranced by how beautiful and varied our country is. From the prairies of Illinois and Indiana to the rolling hills of Kentucky and the mountains of east Tennessee through the plains of Georgia to the verdant swamps of central Florida, the beauty and variety would have been missed completely had we opted to hop a plane and fly down.

I also realized how much I love the variety of flora. While Tennessee provided a display of Red Bud trees in blossom, central and southern Georgia had dogwood and wisteria, the latter occasionally exploding across several trees in a display of purple against the green that was truly a wonder. The dogwood made me miss the dogwood tree in the front yard of the parsonage in Jarratt, VA, whose blossoming in mid- to late-March was the signal that spring really had arrived.

One cannot spend four and a half days in the Disney complex without reflecting on people. The sheer mass of humanity one encounters from the moment one walks out the door of one's room makes it impossible. On the whole, I had my basic faith in the root goodness and even intelligence of human beings reinforced on this trip. Monday and Thursday it rained heavily, enough to drag down the spirits of even the most upbeat vacationer, yet people were unfailingly polite, always quick with a smile, even a "Hello" as you passed. The huge crowds, one could argue, made courtesy necessary to keep tension at a low ebb, yet there was no etiquette police present, no one demanding that all greet one another with a smile and a laugh, sharing moments with complete strangers as we waited in the unusually short lines (the longest wait for any attraction we encountered was about an hour, although the introduction of the Fast Pass certainly helped in that regard) was not a rule posted at the entrance.

I was also impressed with the variety of types of people. Southerners and northerners, western folk and those like us from the upper Midwest. White and black and Hispanic and Asian and non-Americans by the score. Muslim families, the mothers with their heads wrapped in scarves that were beautiful, framing their faces wonderfully standing cheek by jowl with a family of Jews from New York, the men and boys with yarmulkes on their heads, dressed uncomfortably (so it seemed to me) for the warmth of the Florida spring.

Finally, I think the criticisms and derision with which Disney the man and his ideas are addressed by many on the left is rooted as much in ignorance and the kind of earnest silliness one finds all too often in people for whom adherence to ideas is more important than just being with other people. Sure, Disney may well have been an anti-Semite. Given the age in which he lived, this is nor surprising. Compared to the same sentiments among, say Henry Ford or other powerful individuals who were near contemporaries, his was quite less virulent. His company did, after all, produce on the eve of the Second World War a cartoon, "The Three Little Pigs", that effectively showed that he, Disney, was aware of the threat Hitler's regime posed and articulated a courage in the face of Nazi might that was utterly lacking in the rest of the country at that time.

Disney was also a naive, optimistic member of the Church of Progress, who saw in the expanding technologically-rooted ease of life in the 20th century a sign of human improvement that, given the realities of that time, should have been lacking. Yet, he coupled this naive belief that we could make the world a better, more decent place with an abiding belief that in our children - regardless of background - lies our best, perhaps our only hope. We should teach our children to keep their minds open, to work to realize the fondest wishes of their imaginations. As Disney himself was proof this was possible, even as he faced occasional setbacks and failures, it seemed a faith rooted in his experience that one is hard pressed against which to argue.

There are always exceptions to the rule. In particular, my encounters with the thousands of people present were not always enforcing of a kind of base faith in their wisdom or intelligence. How couples could bring infants to Disney World resorts was a source of constant wonder to my wife and me. Even young children, under the age of five or so, it seemed to us, would make enjoying the parks difficult, to say the least. The sight of pregnant women trying, and failing, to get on various rides also made us shake our heads. Then there was the car in parked in front of us at a stop in Tennessee, with various bumper stickers that revealed a narrowness of mind that made my wife cringe. My only thought, still trying to be generous, was that it takes all kinds to make a large country like ours. Someone advertising their ignorance and bigotry as proudly as this person was doing is far less a threat than the silent ones who keep their beliefs to themselves until they explode in an orgy of rage and violence.

By and large, these reflections are a small part of my experience. Most of the time, I was quite simply enjoying eight days of nearly uninterrupted time with my wife and children, in a warm and accommodating space set aside for families to enjoy themselves. We laughed and commented on the rides and attractions and ate and slept and rode together, rarely apart for more than a few minutes at a time, without ever being rancorous or exhausted with one another's company, a testimony, I think, to our abiding love for one another. We shall return there before too much longer, not only to enjoy what we had enjoyed before, but also to experience so much that we missed. Even the very long days we spent in each park were not enough to take in all they had to offer, and we all agreed there was so much yet for us to experience, not least a sunny day at Disney's Animal Kingdom and The Magic Kingdom.

Virtual Tin Cup

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